Have you ever rewarded yourself for a job well done with a piece of delicious dark chocolate? I bet you have. Well, I’ve just threatened myself with no chocolate if I don’t finish this report on Japan’s artisanal chocolate scene!
Not long ago an American friend - and cacao business insider, I might add - declared that Japan's bean-to-bar crafters are among the world's best, and a leading force in the global craft chocolate movement. I was struck by his comment, and decided to dedicate a full week to researching this bold claim. The chocolate sampling spree that I embarked on was a load of fun. Here's my report:
A passion for the bean
According to Tokyo Dandelion's Production Manager Chieko Banno, there are more than 100 small-batch, bean-to-bar chocolate crafters in Japan. Needless to say, that creates an amazing opportunity to try artisanal chocolate almost anywhere from Hokkaido to Kagoshima. But where does one start? Well, that's not too hard…
In the craft chocolate paradise of Tokyo!
For the chocolate aficionado there is no better place than Dandelion Kuramae, the first Japanese offspring of the original Dandelion of San Francisco, CA. This place is a temple of appreciation to the small-batch chocolate movement.
The Kuramae factory store is not just about delicious chocolate products, either. It's a place to learn about the cacao trade itself, how each farm's bean is unique, the product of climate, soil, growing techniques and fermentation processes; and then about the painstaking work that goes into making raw beans into award-winning chocolate.
Learning from the best
Dandelion offers factory tours and chocolate-making workshops (naturally with its own fair trade and sustainably sourced cacao), so a visit to Dandelion Kuramae can be as educational as it is flavorful. Moreover, Dandelion seems dedicated to promoting sustainable, small batch producers everywhere; its attached annex showcases chocolates from other Japanese artisans, as well as numerous products from countries in Asia and Europe.
If you can’t make it to the Kuramae store, know that Dandelion has five locations in Japan, including one in Kamakura, and a new store in Kyoto.
Greenbean to Bar
The Tokyo Greenbean to Bar shop (there is a sister store in Fukuoka) is located in Nakameguro, alongside the romantic Meguro River, and just across from the new Starbucks Reserve Roastery. It's much less conspicuous than its ostentatious neighbor, but you won't miss the inviting, jade colored façade bedecked with flowers and vines. If you love chocolate, you need to visit this place!
As if the fashionable location weren't attraction enough, Greenbean to Bar offers a roomy and comfortable interior in which to savor its native or flavored ganaches and enticing baked goods. The ambience is completely unhurried, so you can relax, read, plan your day of sightseeing, or just people watch - including the patrons (with well-behaved and perfectly coiffured canines, also welcome inside) who stop by to discuss, taste, and take away truly gourmet concoctions of cacao.
Minimal Bean to Bar Chocolate (Ginza)
Minimal has five locations in Tokyo. I only had time to visit the tasting bar in Ginza, which is tucked away on a side street behind Matsuya Department Store, in the heart of this venerable retail district. While searching it out you might happen upon famous brand chocolate retailers with glassy storefronts, because this is Ginza, and chocolate is happening. But don't be seduced by any of them - only Minimal rewards you with the farm-artisanal product.
For the connoisseur
In fact, Minimal might be the most fanatical of the bean to bar crafters in Tokyo. While others blend to round numbers - i.e. the tried and true 70/30, cacao/sugar ratio for dark chocolate - Minimal makes incremental adjustments to achieve an ideal flavor balance. It also indicates on its white and black packaging such fine points as dominant flavor notes, bean variety, region, roasting time and temperature, type of sugar, and more. If all this makes you wonder why it should matter, the Minimal shopkeeper will explain with sommelier-like professionalism why it does. Haitian, Bolivian or Vietnamese, single origin or a 'collaboration' - get ready to educate your palate at Minimal.
If you prefer cake
The store also publishes a monthly newsletter, and holds weekly workshops at its different locations around Tokyo. In addition to its Shirogane-takanawa, Tomigaya (Shibuya) and Ikebukuro stores, it just opened a new gateau chocolat specialty shop, Minimal The Baking, in Yoyogi Uehara. The new store promises to explore the possibilities of baking with cacao, and take the chocolate cake experience to ever-loftier levels of delight.
I would add that you don't shop in Ginza, including at Minimal, and come home with a cheap shopping bag. This place sets the standard for classy packaging; we're talking catwalk-chic bag design. Believe me, if you buy your souvenir chocolates from Minimal, your gift will never be forgotten.
Nel Craft Chocolate Tokyo
This new bean to bar café in Tokyo's leafy Hamacho district is a chocolate purist's dream. Almost like a Japanese tearoom, Nel is a space designed to clear the mind and sharpen the senses, in this case to the taste profiles and creative potential of the cacao bean.
Nel is the creation of chef-chocolatier Yuki Murata, a Kyoto native who spent many years working with top patissiers and chocolatiers in Japan, France and Luxembourg. (The name "Nel" derives from the Japanese verb "neru", which implies to work with heart and soul at one thing, with the goal of polishing a product to ever-higher levels of refinement and quality.) Now dedicated entirely to the creation of delicious chocolate from cacao farms worldwide, Murata can be seen in the kitchen of Nel nearly ever day, immersed in his craft.
Suggestion: Nibble on sample bits of Murata’s preferred African, Caribbean or Southeast Asian-sourced single origin chocolate as you sip your coffee, and try to make up your mind which to take home with you!
Benciny Craft Chocolate Makers, Kyoto
This cacao bar in the old capital offers as many single-origin tasting opportunities as you'll find anywhere in Japan, and it serves a delectable cup of hot chocolate, too. (I visited on a rainy spring day; no doubt they switch to a frappe during the blistering Kyoto summer.) In either case, Benciny is a perfect chocolate refreshment stop for a sightseer, ideally located on the tree-lined moat of the expansive Heian Shrine.
The owner of Benciny, Hideki Yura, spent years studying dessert making in Italy, and the name of his shop is a nod to his favorite confectionery teacher, a certain Mr. Bencini. Today Hideki travels the world in search of only one thing, the tastiest cacao beans, and he will talk to you about the bitter, the fruity, and the nutty to your heart's content.
After tasting nearly a dozen distinctive Benciny chocolates from all corners of the tropics, I selected his Ugandan, Tanzanian and Vietnamese bars for the trip home. I loved his huge selection of sampling chocolates, easily one of the best in Japan. Next time, I'll bring a bigger suitcase!
Foo Chocolaters, Hiroshima
This cacao operation on the third floor of Hiroshima International Airport terminal is artfully designed to entertain and entice the most discriminating of chocolate lovers. Staffed by ladies dressed in stylish, indigo blue samui (traditional Japanese working garb) and showcasing its chocolate melanging (grinding cacao particles) and molding operations through 360 degree, floor-to-ceiling paneled glass, this factory easily wins the prize for the most innovative store design.
The ladies of Foo clearly take great pride in their vegan milk and white chocolate, which they churn from fruity Guatemalan beans on fancy Rottar melangers, and flavor with organic cashew butter and hoji-cha tea leaves. Watching the hypnotic movement of Foo’s stainless steel melangers grinding the chocolate puree is like hearing a siren call to taste and take home this unique, earth-friendly chocolate!
Ushio Chocolatl, Mukojima - a visit to chocolate island
Just an hour east of Hiroshima is the small coastal town of Onomichi. A short ferry ride from its harbor (which is famous for its Inland Sea oyster bars) is the island of Mukojima, where Ushio Chocolatl creates its savory delights in a converted public building overlooking the shimmering inland sea. Shinya Nakamura, the founder of Ushio, has clearly chosen this spot for its splendid view, and as a place to encourage a sense of community - all while enjoying the myriad pleasures of cacao.
This is a spot few foreign tourists will ever see; but you can buy Ushio chocolate online, so no worries. On the other hand, if you can make it to Onomichi, I recommend that you rent bicycles, and take the five-minute ferry ride from town to the island - a curiously romantic interlude. Then pedal out to Ushio to chat with some very cool people, savor great chocolate, and enjoy the amazing view!
Would it still be Japan without chocolate?
Trick question, I know. But when I think about why I love Japan, I think about the people, the hot springs, the trains, the food - and yes, that includes the chocolate!
Apologies to all the dedicated Japanese chocolate artisans I was not able to visit on this trip. (I'll see you someday, I promise!) I've included photos of some of the exotic chocolates I picked up at Dandelion.